Engineering a sustainable future
Take the weight of a bicycle, car, airplane or even cellular phone from 10 years ago and compare it with what is being manufactured today. New products have never felt lighter or more versatile than they do now. Yet just what is precipitating this transition? How are manufactured goods able to improve their capabilities with what seems like far less material?
Concordia experts are tackling these and related questions in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science’s new Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering. “There are a lot of everyday goods where research in materials engineering makes a difference,” says department chair Alex De Visscher. “For instance, airplanes are using composites, which would have been unthinkable 20 to 30 years ago. We’re doing it and saving a lot of fuel as a result.”
Launched in May 2017, Chemical and Materials Engineering is the first university department in Quebec and the second in Canada to offer students the opportunity to examine new chemicals and materials on a continuum.
Chemical engineering is the application of the principles and processes of chemistry, biochemistry, biology and biotechnology to the design and operation of industrial units. This includes the production of bulk chemicals, fine chemicals and metals, as well as chemicals by microorganisms and the conversion of biomaterials into chemicals.
Materials engineering involves the discovery and design of new materials. Whereas the materials engineer is mainly focused on the product, the chemical engineer concentrates on the process. The department will use opportunities for cross-fertilization between both fields to develop sustainable solutions for the energy sector and beyond.
De Visscher believes that what makes the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering stand out is its ability to build off the faculty’s six exist- ing departments. “The Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Aerospace Engineering has several faculty mem- bers who are conducting research in materials engineering, and there are some other departments doing it as well,” he says. De Visscher adds that a lot of materials production actually takes place in Montreal, particularly in the aerospace industry.
De Visscher joined Concordia in January 2017 and, along with new chemical engineering professor Zhibin Ye, shaped the programs, curriculum and labs of this next-generation department. Chemical and Materials Engineering began offering four graduate courses in 2017-18 and will have graduate diploma and certificate programs in place by the fall 2018 semester.
For Ye, Quebec is an ideal place to study in the field because there is a great need for chemical and materials engineers in the province. He singles out the oil, mining, aerospace, pulp and paper, polymer and pharmaceutical industries as sectors that rely heavily on chemical and materials engineering. “There are a lot of experts available in Montreal, which means there are a lot more opportunities. I think that makes us unique,” Ye says.
Along with assistant professor Xiaolei Wang, Chemical and Materials Engineering now has three regular faculty members. The department is also supported by a joint member Rolf Wüthrich, associate professor of mechanical, industrial and aerospace engineering. In addition, Paula-Wood Adams, dean of Graduate Studies, and Christophe Guy, vice-president of Research and Graduate Studies, will offer expertise in a variety of engineering fields.
Sustainable energy sources
“Currently our strengths are in energy and nanomaterials,” De Visscher says. “We’re planning on doing some research related to CO2 — how can we utilize CO2 rather than emit it into the atmosphere? There are different ways you can approach that.”
De Visscher has years of research experience investigating ways to convert CO2 into fuel, which is an area he hopes to further develop at Concordia. He also wants to find new ways of manufacturing chemicals that do not rely on heat as a main energy source.
Ye and Wang, on the other hand, are interested in energy storage materials and technologies, such as lithium-sulfur batteries and supercapacitors. “My research mainly focusses on nanostructure materials for clean-energy technologies, especially for electrochemical energy storage, conversion and generation,” Wang explains. “I work on the design and development of smart materials that have more functionalities when using them in clean-energy technologies.”
Wang refers to lithium sulfur batteries as an example of a technology that is cheap and environmentally friendly. One of the challenges, however, is that during the electrochemical reaction, the intermediate product — lithium polysulfide — becomes soluble in the electrolyte. This could result in lost materials and lower efficiency.
“We’re trying to develop materials to trap the lithium polysulfide in order to avoid the loss in performance,” Wang explains.
The results of this research can significantly impact people’s daily lives, particularly with respect to climate change. Ye believes working with renewable energy sources is a much greener way to envision our future. “One bigger issue with the existence of the petroleum- based industry is pollution,” he says. “These fossil fuel-based energy resources are going to deplete eventually. Solar energy will be available as long as the sun is here.”
De Visscher agrees and says the only way countries can uphold their end of the Paris Agreement is by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. He sees progress in the ways solar and wind energy are becoming economically competitive. He says Canada can play a significant role in this transition because of its oil and petrochemical industry.
“In the future, they’ll use very drastically different ways of producing oil,” De Visscher predicts. “Some of the current oil companies are going to become renewable energy giants — I have no doubt about that. If we’re smart in Canada, we’ll try to get ahead of the game and start developing the technology that is going to be needed for that.”
To develop materials for the future, Chemical and Materials Engineering researchers are looking at how products are currently being manufactured. They will address questions about how much energy and raw materials are required to produce materials, as well as problems related to toxicity and degradation.
These lines of inquiry will also require strong alliances with other Concordia departments and across faculties. “I talk to anybody who’s willing to talk to me about potential collaboration,” De Visscher says. “There are six other engineering departments at Concordia and, ideally, we would like to work with all of them.”
Given their mutual research interests, Ye and Wang have already discussed working on projects together and taking on students who share their enthusiasm for energy storage materials. They too are going beyond the walls of the department to team up with other researchers.
“Within the faculty, I already started collaborating with a colleague in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Saifur Rahaman,” Ye says. “He’s designing membranes for water treatment and these membranes are often polymerbased. He needed an expert in this area to collaborate with.”
The departments of Mechanical, Industrial and Aerospace Engineering, and Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering are the more obvious examples of areas with associated research interests. De Visscher is also having conversations with experts in the Faculty of Arts and Science, the John Molson School of Business and the Faculty of Fine Arts to develop research projects and share expertise. This includes promoting shared activities with the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Physics.
“We can only do good work if we get the science right. That means talking to chemists about the properties of the chemicals,” De Visscher explains. “When we’re looking at nanomaterials, often physicists are the people who are best suited to study the properties of those materials.”